Poor Baby Bree
A cabaret act / descent into madness, Poor Baby Bree is constructed from recovered vaudeville songs, rescued from the landfill of sheet music stores, dating from as early as the 1850s up to the 1920s and 30s. Bree Benton and Franklin Bruno (piano) have created a kind of one-woman show by building a narrative around the stories in these rescued songs. Apparently, some of the spoken text is also appropriated, so the project approaches being Oulipo musical theater, though as with a Harry Mathews novel, it's not necessary to know this ahead of time to understand the performance. The story concerns a young waif experiencing conflicted emotions while running away from home in an attempt to join the circus. Benton channels a child consciousness caught between states of being, with singing as the one recourse truly available to her. The circus always travels just ahead, forever out of reach, an entity perhaps also known as show business. The home she has run away from was dominated by a cruel mother, a cycle of abuse she repeats unknowingly in her relationship with her dolls.
Poor Baby Bree is a strange and riveting hour-and-a-half immersion into the conflicts born not out of a failed individuation, but of a twisted one, manifest in the interstices of cultural time travel, where a dauntingly remote choice of materials and an artificiality of presentation collides with a powerful unbroken chain of affect that you can’t take your eyes off for a second. I never once doubted Benton's tears. She is a serious actress performing totally absurd material. The contours of the resulting content -- strong emotions activating sincerity simultaneously with an alienated distance of communication -- have some surprising shape shifts, including a tender and realistic conversation with a cardboard owl whose only means of expression are his eyelids, lovingly manipulated by Benton herself. The embraced contradictions of the material, message, and presentation were at their most startling when Benton smeared herself with a sticky dirt, releasing the aroma of the chocolate cake icing that the original sign of the "dirt" referenced.
As it turns out, moving only your eyes for expression may be more than enough, just as rooting through musty sheet music and stringing bits of text together to create a meditation on the relation of loneliness and the need for expression may be more than enough. It all seems surprisingly natural coming from a collector's (or art lover's) mind. In fact, a collector's mind might just be a talent for channeling the history of some other kind of speech, or some other era.